To get an idea of how tough the Cain’s Quest Snowmobile Endurance Race can be, just ask Richard Knipping.
Two years ago, the Monmouth snowmobiler came down hard off a snowdrift crossing a remote lake, sprained both his wrists and finished the 1,500-mile race with them wrapped in duct tape.
Every year up to 35 teams of two riders compete in the event, vying for a $65,000 purse, which takes riders from Labrador City, Labrador, into the remote and rugged bush of one of the planet’s last true wildernesses. This year, two Maine teams are competing.
There are no groomed trails, markers or fixed routes. Instead, racers are given GPS coordinates and a map indicating the start, finish and established checkpoints along the way.
It’s up to each team to determine how best to navigate the territory between those points.
“The route gets posted long before the actual race and they give us those 12 to 16 GPS coordinates,” Knipping said. “Then we use maps, Google Earth and three to four different laptops at a time to figure out the best way to get from point A to point B.”
Knipping and fellow racer Robert Gardner of Norridgewock are Team 22 of Team Maine. Fellow Team USA members are Peter Ouellette of Portland and Mike Perrino of Freeport, making up Team 44.
This is Team 22’s fourth year running Cain’s Quest and Knipping said it’s the double draw of intense competition and the Labrador landscape that keeps drawing them back.
“Rob contacted me in 2007 and I had never heard about that race [but] I love to push myself and be competitive,” Knipping said. “I researched the race and called Rob and said I’d do it if he’d have me as his partner.”
The two went on to become the first U.S. team to compete in and complete Cain’s Quest.
In 2009 the pair had their best showing out of three races, coming in second, a mere six minutes behind first place after leading most of the 1,500 miles.
“On the last day we decided to take a different route into the finish that should have bought us 30 minutes,” Knipping said. “But we got stuck and ended up coming in six minutes out of first place.”
Not bad considering half of those entering the race never finish at all.
“People go up and are unprepared or experience mechanical breakdowns they can’t fix because they don’t have the right parts or expertise,” Knipping said. “It’s not like there’s a garage close by.”
The first year Knipping and Gardner ran the race they did so with a skeleton support crew and came back to Maine with a much better idea how to prepare logistically for the event.
“Because we take this race seriously, we have a support crew with extra fuel, tools, belts, springs and other parts we don’t want to carry,” Knipping said. “We can look at the race map and figure out where to have people waiting close to the trail if we need help.”
While fuel can be shipped ahead – by helicopters – to most of the checkpoints, Knipping said this year two of those spots are not marked for fuel drops, meaning the teams will have to carry spare tanks.
“Teams are going to have to pull sleighs with extra fuel this year,” Knipping said. “Plus we always have tents, sleeping bags, food and equipment if we need to camp out.”
While Knipping said sleeping at the checkpoints beats camping out, there have been times conditions have forced them to rough it in the busy.
“One year we had suspension problems and came upon another team who’d lost a clutch,” Knipping said. “We ended up camping out with them on the trail and that night Rob rebuilt the guy’s clutch in an old shed next to a trapper’s hut using his headlamp for light.”
Avoiding breakdowns on the trail is a big part of the team’s racing strategy and why Knipping and Gardner have been working some late nights getting their 2011 Skidoo Renegades ready.
“We basically tear them down to the chasses and rebuild them,” Knipping said. “Suspension is the biggest issue because they are just not strong enough for the gear and abuse we put on them.”
Breaking trail the entire way, Knipping said it’s not uncommon for the sleds to power their ways through miles of drifting snow.
“The easiest ways to go up there is on water and the water is all frozen of course in the winter,” he said. “But those lakes all have drifts – about a million each – and some of those snowdrifts are the size of Volkswagens.”
Completing a 1,500-mile snowmobile race in a matter of four or five days does not leave much time for rest and Knipping said the first run out of Labrador City will probably last 36 hours before he and Gardner stop to rest at the first checkpoint for the mandatory 18-hour layover.
Teams this year head north to Kuujjuaq at the southern tip of Ungava Bay before turning back towards Labrador City.
Along the way a second, 12-hour mandatory layover awaits at Churchill Falls and from there it’s the final leg back to the finish at Labrador City.
“We’ve finished top five every year,” Knipping said. “But Rob and I have always said from the get-go if we see a team in trouble out there we will always stop to help, even if we lose time.”
Saying it takes a certain amount of mental toughness and determination to run a race in which half a day can be spent digging stuck snowmobiles out of chest-deep snow, Knipping added for him it comes down to his love of competing.
“I certainly don’t go for the weather,” he said with a laugh. “We’ve been stuck for hours using shovels and snowshoes to dig out and have even cut down trees, flipped the sleds on their sides and put the trees under them to get going again.”
On the trail double-digit sub-zero temperatures and high winds are the norm, though Knipping said they have been lucky to avoid any major snowstorms.
In all there are 12 members on Team Maine, counting the support crew who will leave for Labrador next week in three trucks hauling three trailers.
Knipping said it costs around $50,000 for Team Maine to participate in Cain’s Quest, and about 90 percent of that comes from corporate sponsors like DeLorme Maps, Katahdin Extreme Gear, Dysarts and Hammond Tractor Company.
In exchange, the team gives back by raising money for Pine Tree Camp.
“At a recent function we were able to present a check for $3,000 to Pine Tree Camp,” Knipping said. “That was really cool.”
There is little doubt the members of Team USA will be sore and exhausted after days of sleep deprivation and breaking trail, but Knipping wouldn’t trade it for the world.
“I like to push myself,” he said. “Plus the race itself is quite the adventure.”
Fans can follow Cain’s Quest and Team USA by going to www.teammaineracing.net.